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April 18, 2013

What You Need to Know

Going on Strike(outs)

by Daniel Rathman

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The Wednesday Takeaway
Game two of three between the Tigers and Mariners began with a strikeout—by Felix Hernandez of Austin Jackson. Few first at-bats have ever proven to be a better harbinger of the dozens still to come.

By the time Brayan Pena endured a collision with Justin Smoak to secure the final out in the bottom of the 14th inning, the teams had combined to strike out 40 times, three shy of the major-league record. The Angels and Athletics teamed up to set that record on July 9, 1971, in a 20-inning contest that featured a whole lot of whiffs and only one run. Given the 37 additional at-bats that they were afforded, the Tigers and Mariners would likely have smashed it. 

The first eight innings brought the 14,981 in attendance the best pitchers’ duel of the season to date—a battle compelling enough to stay atop that list through the summer. Hernandez and Max Scherzer each allowed one run (which, in the former’s case, was unearned) and notched 12 strikeouts, accounting for 60 percent of the game’s total while mirroring each other throughout the evening. They finished with nearly identical pitch counts: 76 strikes and 30 balls for Hernandez, 75 strikes and 30 balls for Scherzer. Each threw first-pitch strikes to 21 of the 29 batters he faced. And, when both were done for the night, each had induced 19 whiffs.

The bullpens—excluding Octavio Dotel, Blake Beavan, and Joaquin Benoit—picked up where the starters left off, working both dominantly and efficiently. Tom Wilhelmsen needed only 20 pitches to log six outs and contribute three of the evening’s 40 strikeouts. Al Alburquerque required only 25 to match his line. And, despite the near-record volume of punchouts, the staffs combined to throw only 414 pitches, fewer than 15 per inning—an accomplishment made more impressive by the fact that home-plate umpire Bob Davidson’s strike zone was, if anything, a little tight.

Prince Fielder, who saw 27 pitches and went 0-for-6 with a career-high five strikeouts, did more than his share, but all but one of the 18 starters chipped in. Both leadoff men, Jackson and Franklin Gutierrez, took home golden sombreros. Jhonny Peralta and Pena, whose bases-loaded groundout in the top of the 14th plated the eventual winning run, supplied hat tricks. And of the 18 position players who started on Wednesday, only Victor Martinez, who went 1-for-6, managed to avoid the punchout parade entirely.

A 41st strikeout, to bookend the game-opener provided by Hernandez and Jackson, might have been a more poetic conclusion to the 2-1 Detroit win, but the play at the plate was equally fitting.

Smoak, who led off the last half-inning with a single, couldn't hit the ball out. For most of the evening, his teammates and counterparts couldn’t hit it at all. 

Matchup of the Day
Free agency took Nick Swisher from New York to Cleveland, and as the former Yankee bid farewell to his teammates and counterparts in the American League East, Jon Lester must have been among the pitchers that he was sad to leave behind. 

After a severely disappointing 2012 campaign, in which Lester surrendered a career-high 25 home runs and saw his strikeout rate dip to 19 percent from 22.8 percent in 2011, the left-hander has seemingly righted his ship. Lester has been charged with two or fewer runs in each of his first three starts, and through 19 innings, he has fanned 18, issued only three walks, and not allowed a homer. Considering that Swisher went 5-for-10 with two doubles in their meetings last year, the resurgent Lester should be eager for his first chance to put the shoe on the other foot.

Over the entire 57-plate-appearance history between Swisher and Lester, the switch-hitting Ohio State product has gone 15-for-46 with six doubles, two homers, eight walks, and 12 strikeouts—good for a .326/.429/.587 triple-slash line, from which the 1.016 OPS is the second-highest (Carlos Pena, 1.124) ceded by Lester to any hitter he has faced at least 50 times. Swisher went 2-for-4 in Wednesday night’s game and delivered his second home run of the season, a two-run shot off of Alfredo Aceves that marked the front end of a back-to-back effort completed by Jason Giambi. He is 7-for-20 with two doubles and a big fly in 24 plate appearances versus southpaws this year.

The 29-year-old Lester has, throughout his career, leaned heavily on his hard stuff when facing opposite-handed batters, using a fastball, sinker, or cutter on 74 percent of his offerings. He has relaxed that rate a bit with Swisher in the box, turning to his 90-plus-mph options 71 percent of the time and rolling the remaining 3-4 percent into curveballs, many of which—as you can see in the plot on the afore-linked matchup page—have broken down and in toward Swisher’s back foot.

Breaking balls have generally been a low-risk choice against Swisher, at least in his right-handed plate appearances, as he has shown a tendency to flail at the back-foot spin Lester has employed while struggling to take advantage of middle-middle hangers. Fastballs, though, are an entirely different story

…as Lester learned the hard way here, here, here, and on several other occasions.  The outside corner is generally safe, and well-placed offerings in on the hands can have the pitcher’s desired effect, but Swisher seldom lets in-the-zone mistakes go unpunished. Lester’s command has been sharper so far this year than it was in 2012, and it will likely need to stay that way for him to avoid incurring Swisher’s wrath yet again.

What to Watch for on Thursday

  • Early Tuesday morning, Yovani Gallardo was arrested for drunken driving. Hours later, the right-hander apologized via a statement to the media for what he termed “a bad decision.” Now, less than 72 hours after the arrest, Gallardo will return to the mound and lock horns with Matt Cain in the series finale between the Brewers and Giants.

    The 27-year-old has fared well in his past encounters with the Giants, amassing a 2.96 ERA over 51 2/3 innings, but he struggled to miss bats at his typical rate in his first three starts of the 2013 campaign, perhaps in part because of a downtick in his fastball velocity. Gallardo has generated whiffs with 6.59 percent of the fastballs he has thrown over the course of his big-league career, but that clip has plunged to 3.09 percent so far this year. As a result, he has notched only three strikeouts each time out this month, after collecting at least that many in 27 of his last 28 starts in 2012 (1:10 p.m. ET).
  • Our own Sam Miller came to this startling realization about Mariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma: In his three starts so far this season, he has faced a grand total of 10 batters from the stretch. The 32-year-old import has permitted only nine hits and one walk over 20 2/3 innings of work, and four of those nine hits cleared a fence, which—runs be damned—enabled him to face the next hitter out of the windup. After outdueling Yu Darvish in a win over the Rangers on April 12, Iwakuma now gets an even tougher assignment, as he goes toe-to-toe with Justin Verlander in the series finale at Safeco Field (3:40 p.m. ET).
  • We already know that 20-year-old Jose Fernandez can excel in the pitcher-friendly confines of Citi Field and Marlins Park, but is he ready for the challenge of navigating the bandbox that is Great American Ball Park? The answer to that question should come tonight, when the rookie gets the ball in a matchup with Reds left-hander Tony Cingrani, who will be making his first major-league start. It’s a battle of electric stuff and outstanding deception, and one that you will not want to miss (7:10 p.m. ET).  

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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